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Failed Radicals in Europe

Anti-war Protests and Unrest in France, 1968

"Politically we lost – thank God."   Daniel Cohn-Bendit, decades after the event.

In Europe, young people were voicing their opposition to what the United States was doing in Vietnam. From Norway south, people had been acquiring an unfavorable picture of the United States, mitigated only by the vast numbers of Americans protesting the war. Some Germans were saying that Germany had made its big mistakes and now it was the United States taking its turn at mistakes. And, of course, there were those who were willing to go to extremes in their opposition to US policy. On March 18, 1968 in Paris, left-wing student commandos set off bombs in the offices of Chase Manhattan Bank, the Bank of America and Trans World Airlines, the "commandos" believing these companies were involved in the war in Vietnam.

Responding to the bombing a few days later, Paris police arrested two young men and three school boys, and that day, at the University of Paris annex at Nanterre a meeting was called to protest the arrests, attended by around 150 people. The gathering called itself the Movement of March 22, and they decided also to address unpleasant conditions at their university and , including overcrowding and dormitory rules.

The strategy of the Movement of March 22 was to provoke. They scuffled with school authorities. The school dean called police for help. Four vans of police arrived, and students chanted "Nazis" at the police. The commotion made headlines in France's newspapers, and it brought the Movement of March 22 support from various "intellectuals" and from students at other universities. The rise of Leftists on various campuses inspired right-wing students to do battle with the Leftists. Rioting erupted at the University of Paris – the Sorbonne. The university administration called on rioting students to disperse. The students refused. The police were called in, and the police came with vans into which they put male and female students. Students shouted "down with the repression." They threw stones at the vans, shattered van windshields, and lifted parked cars onto the road to block the departure of the vans, and the police attempted to control the rampaging students with tear gas.

A clash between the students and the Paris police escalated. On a Saturday morning, four or five thousand students gathered off campus, at the Latin Quarter. They paraded and chanted "professors not police." The demonstrators were joined by a few faculty members, high school students and others, and at three in the afternoon the enlarged demonstration started toward the Sorbonne. The police pushed them back, and a twelve-hour battle followed, the police and demonstrators pushing each other back and forth across the boulevards. The demonstrators lit fires, pulled up cobblestones from the street, and they tore iron gratings from around trees on the sidewalks and uprooted traffic signs, which they threw at the police. The police were clumsy and knocked down commuters. They sprayed tear gas over the area, and they stormed sidewalk cafes where demonstrators had fled. The police rounded up demonstrators and took them away in policy vans. And the movement now had a new slogan: "Liberate our comrades!"

The student revolt spread from Paris to universities in the provinces. The mood among the young was not the desperation of those involved in a real revolution; it was joy, exhilaration, excitement and hope that some big but vague change was in the offing. Many adults were in sympathy with the students, including labor unionists led by Social Democrats. Communist led labor unions, with their vague idea as to what revolution was supposed to be about, held back, declaring the student rising as the work of "leftist adventurers."

In early May, a general strike was called, and ten million people went out on strike. The Social Democrat led unions turned their factory yards into fairgrounds in support of the student uprising. The celebrated Jean Paul Sartre and 121 others signed a statement asserting "the right to disobedience," and Sartre spoke approvingly of student barricades, stating that violence was their only recourse. Leftist politicians called people into the streets as a show of force, and a half million people paraded peacefully and in good humor. Paris came to a halt. And hope was rising on the Left that France's president, Charles de Gaulle, would be toppled.

The protest in France surprised and aroused people across much of Europe, and a wave of youthful protest spread to every major democratic nation in Europe. Students in Sweden joined in, not only protesting the war in Vietnam but also looking for injustices within Sweden that they could denounce. But the revolution in France was now about to fizzle. France was a nation that had some experience with revolution, and many in France looked at the prospect of revolution with revulsion. Many among the French also associated revolution with Communism, which added to their revulsion.

After the Communists had seen the size of the strike movement, they joined it, and de Gaulle spoke to the nation on television and described France as being threatened by Communist dictatorship. The Communists and the Socialists, he said, were conspiring to overthrow legitimate government. He promised the nation that he was not about to surrender the mandate given to him by the French people. He dissolved parliament and announced new general elections. De Gaulle's supporters flooded the streets in numbers greater than the Left had put into the streets. Veterans wore their medals. People sang the Marseilles. There was a chant that "Communists will not pass" and that France was for the French. Rightist rowdies could not resist joining in the anti-Communist demonstrations, and referring to the student movement leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Danny the Red), the son of Jews who had fled Germany, some chanted "Cohn-Bendit à Dachau." A few shots were fired at Communist Party office buildings.

A few of the labor strikes were called off, and on June 18 the biggest strike, at the Renault plant, ended – with labor having won some hikes in wages. As people elsewhere were going back to work, some on the Left tried to revitalize the movement with more demonstrations and some violence. The government announced a ban on all demonstrations anywhere in France until after the elections, then pending. The government declared illegal the student movement's organization and declared illegal a Trotskyist organization and a Maoist group. The government expelled from France dozens of foreigners considered trouble makers. And all red flags were hauled down from poles on state property.

A showdown concerning opinion came in elections. The Gaullist Party (associated with Charles de Gaulle) increased its seats in parliament from 200 to 297. The Gaullist Party and its allies held 385 of the 487 seats in parliament – a great majority for the Gaullists. The Socialists dropped from 118 seats to 57. Communist Party seats in parliament fell from 73 to 34. Together the Socialists and Communists had lost 100 seats. And the war in Vietnam would last for seven more years.

Baader-Meinhof and the Red Brigade

Rising from the anti-war protests of 1968 was the youthful group in Germany that came to be known as the Baader-Meinhof gang. They wanted social revolution, their struggles having convinced them that their society was evil. They hoped that their acts would provoke the authorities into exposing this evil to the rest of German society. They announced that they were waging a war against "fascist Germany." They kidnapped and killed ten or so people, and rather than win the public as they had hoped they were despised by most Germans. Without a mass following, their revolution failed, and in 1977 their leaders – Adreas Baader and two others – committed suicide.

In Italy, a student movement and the anti-Vietnam war activities gave birth to the "Red Brigade" (Brigate Rosse). From chanting "Johnson executioner" they began to focus on the evils of capitalist society, and in 1978 they kidnapped and murdered Aldo Moro, Italy's leading Christian Democrat. The Red Brigade remained isolated and despised, and like the Baader-Meinhof gang they gained nothing.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.